John Byrne’s past is all around him. Standing outside the hall on the verge of Edinburgh’s Grassmarket where his new play, Nova Scotia, is being rehearsed, the site of the old Traverse Theatre is a stone’s throw away. It was there Byrne’s career as a playwright began in the 1970s with The Slab Boys. This scabrously funny study of working class frustration and aspiration set in a Paisley carpet factory became a topping point for Scottish drama.
Along with the play’s two sequels, The Slab Boys was revived five years ago at The Traverse’s new home. Seeing the trilogy together over the course of a season allowed audiences to chart the fortunes of Phil and Spanky in full. The boys’ back-street ambitions to be an artist and a rock star had come true, although other, more grown-up concerns lingered alongside the middle-aged spread that accompanied them.
A quarter of a century on, Nova Scotia catches up with Byrne’s heroes in their dotage. Rather than settle down quietly, however, as one might expect from such a pair of wise-cracking smarty-pants, both have grown old disgracefully.
“It’s the only way to go,” says 67 year old Byrne, removing yellow-rimmed spectacles in a noisy café close to the rehearsal room. “It’s a case of be as you were, only worse. To the extent that they gate-crashed the play,” Byrne says, his blue eyes twinkling. “I was curious about what happened to them both, and the only way to find out was to write the play. But I never set out to. I was going to do another play in the same setting, but because I knew them so well, they kept on nagging me. I didn’t know how it was going to unfold, because I never plan things out. All I knew was that they got together somehow, and that Spanky was still involved in the world of rock, in the way that all these bands are getting together again, and that somebody was wanting to make a video of them. I see Nazareth are on tour again,” Byrne says of the 1970s rock legends currently doing the rounds, then squints as he listens to the hip hop music playing in the café.
“Is that two different songs playing?” he asks of the track, on which a fiddle melody plays on top of seemingly disparate beats.
There’s a similar sense of worlds colliding in Nova Scotia. Phil and Spanky may have gate-crashed the play, but they remain the indulgent face of rock n’ roll bohemia. Phil’s Turner Prize nominated conceptual artist partner Didi, on the other hand, comes off worse. Byrne comes from an era where craftsmanship and artistry were valued far more than the shock of the new. It’s a generational divide Byrne feel acutely. At one point in the play, Phil and Didi tear verbal chunks out of each other in a way that illustrates the ongoing aesthetic debate Byrne is wrestling with.
“They’re quite hard on each other,” he says, “because there’s a culture clash that’s going on there. It’s strange in this country that the avant-garde is the established order. Conceptual art seems to be more about celebrities and invitations to 10 Downing Street and all of that. When I started out, most successful artists were getting bungs off the galleries. It was corruption. Now there’s the whole PR thing as well, so you have a sanitised culture industry that’s manipulated for the lowest common denominator, and all you get is entertainment. But there’ll be a younger generation coming along soon who’ll think all that’s terribly old-fashioned and want to blow it away. I’ve never been the established order,” he says. “I’ve missed out.”
Where, then, does Byrne fit in? He’s instinctively anti-establishment, but he’s also opposed to arty-fartyness for the sake of it. The Slab Boys is regarded as a contemporary classic of popular theatre, though it isn’t the no-frills knockabout it’s often mistaken for. Byrne’s plays may be hilarious, but the stream of brilliant one-liners that ricochet through the dialogue are barbed with pathos. In Byrne’s world, laughs are never cheap, and setting his work so close to home is a deliberate strategy in order to tackle some very big ideas.
“The laughs,” Byrne points out, “have to be earned through a bit of darkness.”
Sure enough, on paper, the potential for laughter goes way beyond the dialogue. As with most people who know each other inside out, it’s what’s left unsaid beyond the banter that’s important. So it is with Phil and Spanky.
“I never saw any plays that represented me,” Byrne says, “so I had to invent them, and I had to tell these stories in a way that I recognised. It’s the content of something that transcends things, not the means. It’s about what we’re doing here, so why waste time? I don’t want to be reinventing the novel that I’m reading.”
Next up for Byrne is a musical written with composer Jim Rafferty, called Underwood Lane. Like Byrne, Rafferty also worked in the slab rooms, and their connections go way back. Rafferty is the elder brother of Gerry Rafferty, who scored a worldwide hit with Baker Street. In the 1970s Byrne provided artwork for Rafferty’s album covers, while Rafferty’s song, Patrick, is about Byrne. Any similarities between the real life artist and rock star and Spanky and Phil, however, is purely coincidental. Probably.
Set in two streets in Paisley, Underwood Lane, says Byrne, is a love story. Significantly, rather than a contemporary setting, it takes place in a past all too familiar to its author.
“If it was set now you’d need a young person to write it to get it right,” says Byrne, “and it would have to be about things that no longer makes any inroads into my psyche. I have to write about a world that’s familiar to me,” he says. “It’s your back catalogue that makes you who you are.”
Nova Scotia, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 29 April-24 May; previews 25-27 April
The Herald, April 22nd 2008